Eric at Wet Asphalt takes a look at Criticism vs. Reviewing:

... blogs tend toward shorter pieces than magazines or newspapers. Straight up reviews tend to be shorter than longer critical essays. I still expect all of them to deal with the subject of fiction (and poetry!) with the same sort of honesty, earnestness, intelligence, insight and passion. I want all of them to make me think about fiction in new ways, to expose me to authors I've never heard of, and make me reconsider the ones I have. And if you can do that, I'll call the work you do it with whatever name you want me to.

Eric looks at this subject through the prism of the differences between the work of the New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani and James Wood ("who writes chiefly for the New Republic and The Guardian"). Essentially, dismissing Kakutani and lauding Wood, Eric only sees a difference of "of quality rather than of genre" between the two. I'm not so sure. I think at some point the differences in quality (and, often, length) between a review and criticism make the distinction useful. Certainly, at one extreme, the difference is obvious: a 200-word plot summary is not criticism. As a review gets more complex and in-depth, though, it is a distinction one often feels but that isn't particularly easy to define.

One difference between the two forms might be the focus in reviewing on the book in hand, the story it is telling, and how successfully it accomplishes what it sets out to do: synopsis plus brief evaluation. With criticism, the book is additionally placed in its wider context and set against other works (often within a particular -- and sometimes particularly technical -- critical apparatus): synopsis, context, evaluation. With a review, the theoretical perspective is rarely made apparent -- the review is a "common-sense" take. Criticism is aware that any "common-sense" view of literature is naive: it hides an ideological reading it simply isn't aware of. Criticism incorporates the knowledge of the existence of its own perspective into its reading. Kakutani blathers; James Wood -- whether you agree with it or not -- has an explicit theory and measures work against it.

Readers Comments

  1. Morning Mark,
    I'd have put it more simply:

    A review answers the question:'Should I buy this book?'

    Criticism: 'Now that I've bought it, what do I think?'

  2. Hi Kit,

    Yes. That's good.


  3. Pat Williams Friday 15 June 2007

    Personally I am sick of reading reviews that are mere plot summary: a review should be critical, otherwise there's no point to it. I recently sent LRB a letter on this subject; they weren't interested - but I think it's relevant to the discussion so here it is:


    "No credit will be given for regurgitaion of the plot" Scottish Quakifications Authority guidelines for Critical Writing.

    The SQA's approach to the teaching of literature may have its faults but its comment on the uselessness of mere plot summary in Critical Writing is sound. By its rules - let alone those we might expect to govern LRB contributions - Thomas Jones's piece on "The Pesthouse" by Jim Crace is a clear fail: three of its five and a half columns are devoted to narrative precis and the other two to (mildly interesting) comments on Crace's previous books. Curiously missing from Jones's article is any reference to the recent appearance of Cormac McCarthy's novel "The Road" which has the same dystopia as its starting point. A genuine CRITICAL discussion and comparison of these two novels might have provided the LRB with a stimulating and significant contribution to literary discourse - discourse of the quality I subscribe for.

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